26 February 2012

lenten chocolat

It is the beginning of Lent, and I find that I approach every Lent with a deeper appreciation, a deeper stirring of anticipation, a deeper longing for this time of abiding in the Lord.

In the weeks leading up to this, I can feel my soul turning, opening up, desiring. I want to be pared down. To be pruned. To be grafted closer to the one who pares, prunes, and grafts.

It is not—it cannot be—a guilt-driven longing for repentance, healing, growth.

A guilt-driven longing says:
Why do I fail? Why do I drift? Why do I pull away? Why do I need Lent every year to remind me to stick close? Why am I so unaffected the other 10ish months of the year?
A guilt-driven longing also says:
I will marshal {or perhaps even martial? Such an emphasis on war} my forces; I will bring my conflicting desires in line. I will defeat this. This apathy, fear of honesty, two-facedness, emotional stunting. I will show you, Lord, my love and commitment.
I. I. I. I. I.

{But think of this I: I must become less so that he can become greater.}

Lent is not for punishment as proof.

Lent is not for sacrifice as proof.

I think of the representation of Lent and religiosity in Chocolat, a story that asks: What does love look like? What does it mean to love and serve others—and God?

The Comte, the mayor of the small French village where everyone knows their role {and that they must be seen at church}, views Lent as discipline and deprivation. His Lenten fast is strict and absolute: he has his housekeeper bring him a croissant every night, even though he refuses to touch it. There is such good butter in that flaky pastry, and the Comte confronts it as proof of his strength in the onslaught of temptation. {Just like our Lord and Savior, who fought temptation in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.}

But there is no joy more hollow than the joy of self-satisfaction. The Comte's Lent is about proving something—his righteousness?—to himself and others. His proof comes in adhering to rules; the Lord must love him more because he is so exacting. See? See his obedience? See how much he must love God? See?

The Comte relies on rules to bring order to his world, and it is possible to see where he's coming from: After all, the Lord wants us to be obedient. He tells us we must share in his suffering. Does it not make sense to use the Lenten fast as a pre-ordained—a God-given—practice of obedience and suffering?

Yes and no.

The blend of answers lies in this: What's your motivation for entering into Lent? Is it Lent as proof—or Lent as a way to grow closer to the Lord?

The Comte in Chocolat doesn't want to know more about the Lord; he wants to show more of himself. To him, loving God means following rules. {And therefore, he equates loving others as imposing rules and making sure they follow. Good thing he's the mayor.}

He overlooks the joy of relationship for the regulation of will.

This is, I admit, a facile interpretation, a reductionist view of Lent and even of Chocolat. It ignores all kinds of gray areas, such as: What about the power of physical deprivation—fasting, you know—to bring about spiritual transformation? What if someone, by strictly following the rules because they aren't sure how else to relate to God—what if the rules lead them to a deeper appreciation of God the Father?

And in Chocolat, what of this gray area? Vianne, the wandering chocolate maker who appears in the village and opens a chocolate shop just in time for Lent, wants true, lasting relationships. While operating on an openness to love, she also craves order. She wants the structure that belonging somewhere can bring, but with belonging and structure come rules and expectations—those very things she fears will drag her down and bind her. However, rules and expectations help us, to some degree, know how to relate to one another—the very thing she loves.

Somewhere between the Comte's masochistic adherence to rules at the cost of relationships and Vianne's paradoxical fear of and longing for entanglement lies the truth: We need order and others, and there is much to celebrate in both of those.

The same truth can, in a way, be applied to Lent: its order {the regularity in the liturgical calendar, the prescribed season of simplifying your life, the march toward the resurrection} holds in it great celebration because it reminds us of our relationship to the Lord and the call we have to live in him.

And it's for that reason—Lent as reminder of the joy of life in the Lord—that I anticipate this time, regardless of what I give up or don't give up and regardless of who knows what I gave up or didn't give up. Lent is a time to celebrate as you lean closer to the Lord and the church.

20 February 2012

a strange winter

And what a strange winter it's been. Prepared for the worse, we have gotten the mildest.

Months ago, the hardware store put up signs by the space heaters, the insulation, the firewood, and the kits for covering your windows with plastic.

The signs read: This is predicted to be the worst winter on record. Prepare now!!

It had both an apocalyptic and Boy Scout-ic feel to it, that sign, and standing in the aisle in front of rows of space heaters—designed to bring warmth to a sliver of your world, a corner of your own, a slice of your life—it was possible to feel small and cold in anticipation.

The signs suggested: Winter is inevitable. Cold is inevitable. You must find a way to create light and warmth in the dark because these months will be long and snowy and icy and dangerous.

But here we are in mid-February, and it rained last week.

When it did, the earth smelled like spring and renewal.

The world was sliced open to reveal possibility, new life, and a reminder of just how wrong we can be. The signs we look to are not always right.

14 February 2012

conversation hearts: a willy wonka adventure

"How many of those have you eaten today? When the dentist looks in your mouth, he's going to see a chalky layer from all those conversation hearts," Christy told me as I popped a pink heart in my mouth.

I laughed as I imagined Dr. Holdridge pulling the overhead light closer, telling me to open wider, and squinting in disbelief as he peered in my mouth.

"Your teeth are pastel! And—this is really very interesting—you appear to have little letters floating around your mouth. There along your gums, it says EMAIL ME. In the space where you wisdom teeth should be—" stern look here as he implies that maybe if I still had my wisdom teeth, I wouldn't be turning my teeth shades of Easter eggs "—here, it says I ♥ YOU."

It'd be like an extra scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and the Oompa-Loompas would toddle out and gloomily sing about how my twin obsessions with sugar and words had consumed my mouth. With their green helmet hair never moving, they'd doom me to a life of speaking only in conversation heart phrases.

As they dragged me away from Willy Wonka, I'd try to shout out my defense, wanting to say, "I know I ate an entire bag of conversation hearts in three days! A whole bag, all by myself! I know that equates to 28 servings and my Recommended Daily Allowance of Sugar for the next three months! But this is a once-a-year treat! A throwback to childhood!"

I'd want to say that, but all I'd be able to shout would be, "TRUE LOVE! YOU'RE CUTE! KISS ME!"

Oompa-Loompa doobity-do.

"Kamiah, seriously, the whole bag?" By chastising me for my conversation heart intake, Christy saved me from my Willy Wonka fate, very imaginary as it was {quite apt, considering that "Pure Imagination" song Willy sings—just before the scariest boat ride through a tunnel ever}.

"Ok, even I'm a little shocked by how quickly I ate this one."

"This one? How many bags have you had this year?"

"Just the one!"

"Really? But the whole bag since Monday? Don't you have any...any..." Christy looked for the right word as I slid a handful of hearts over to her. It's all right to be a pusher if you're a pusher of love.

"Self-control? Will power? Is that what you're looking for?"

"No, I was looking for sugar threshold. But now that you mention it, do you have any will power?"

I considered this. Bags of Oreos came to mind. Dinners of popcorn and red wine. The time I found maple leaf cookies on sale at Aldi and ate half the box before lunch. The stash of starlight mints I keep in my desk drawer. How I can never make cookies or brownies without leaving a spatula's worth of batter to eat.

"You know, I might not have any will power, but if it's any reassurance, I, at times, display the same inability to stop eating with healthy food. Like right now with kale. I have had kale at every meal for the last week. Even breakfast. I can't stop sauteeing it with garlic, letting it get just crispy enough so it's like I've made kale chips. Ooh, that sounds good right now. As a side dish with the conversation hearts."

Is it a lack of will power?

Or is it just an insatiable appetite for the things I like, be they TV shows {seems appropriate to mention Downton Abbey and The Mary Tyler Moore Show here} or books {Laurie Colwin, how I love your prose and could read it every night without tiring} or food?

"Insatiable appetite" certainly sounds better than "lack of will power," doesn't it?

Most people I've told about my insatiable appetite for conversation hearts have looked at me like I was eating little kittens' hearts. I take it 99% of the population thinks they're revolting, which makes me the happy 1% who will be stocking up the day after Valentine's Day on TRUE LOVE and TOO SWEET pieces of confectionary joy.

Even my dental hygenist looked at me with disgust when I mentioned the conversation hearts. I refrained from mentioning Oompa-Loompas.

"Even the pink ones that taste like Pepto Bismol? You like those?"

Kelly was measuring the density of my teeth with these laser thing, so I couldn't do much in reply but mumble a "Uh-huh."

She couldn't hear my answer, though, over the high-pitched screeching of the laser. Kelly pulled it out of my mouth and said, "I'm so sorry to tell you this, but you have your first cavity."

Oompa-Loompa doobity-do
Conversation hearts will make you rue
Their sugary sweetness so yummy going down
Until your tooth needs a crown

PS In case you're worried about my dental knowledge: I know that my conversation heart gluttony on Monday did not cause a cavity on Thursday.

And I don't need a crown; that was some artistic license taken for rhyming.

This is a very defensive PS, isn't it? I think that's because I reveled in my perfect teeth record, even though teeth have a lot more to do with genetics than with performance {and my 89-year-old grandfather never had a cavity}. But if there is an opportunity to feel like I've won an award, I will gladly raise my toothbrush as if it were that giant silver plate thing they award at Wimbledon.

Not that I can win the perfect teeth award anymore.

Okay, let's move away from defensiveness and sadness. Given my consumption of conversation hearts, it was a very ironic dental visit—that's all I want to point out.

And that maybe I should work on my will power.

12 February 2012

God's grandeur: on listening and good literature

I sat in church and tried to focus, but the pastor had mentioned Gerard Manley Hopkins in his sermon.

In the face of Hopkins, it's often hard to concentrate on anything but the images that fill that movie screen in your mind as you read his poems.

Word by word, verb by noun, that man could create the most dazzling, glowing images with just a few strokes of the pen.

I imagine that, if he were a painter, he would've used entire tubes of color on one painting.

He would've created the kind of paintings that imprint themselves on your eyelids—the kind you can still see when you close your eyes. He would've painted the kind you can see for years after you leave the white, hushed space of the museum where you first saw the boldly declarative painting.

Hopkins' poems let you make your own paintings in your mind, the kind that come back years later when you hear or read the poem again.

So, in light of Hopkins' image-laced words, I can't be blamed for not paying attention to the sermon, even if it was, ironically, about listening {to the Lord, of course, not just to the pastor}.

As quickly as the images came back for "God's Grandeur"—images formed when I read the poem for my Modern Brit Lit class at Truman State University—I stumbled around my brain for the literary details I'd learned about Hopkins as part of that class.

Not just the facts of his life: those are not interesting to trot out, even in the dullest of trivia games.

I mean those literary details that explain why he was an important writer and what his traits were and how you can identify him in a poetry line-up {which is the kind of line-up interesting to English majors and perhaps not to any one else.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was known for developing his own rhythm. He gave it a particular name, and as I sat in church not bothering to listen, I was trying to remember what he'd called it.

It seemed, in that moment, that the entire point of my English degree dangled dangerously off a cliff, hanging on with fingers that were quickly tiring.

A bit dramatic, a bit Gothic, a bit exaggerated, and perhaps that's what my English degree was good for: for creating overwrought sentences.

How could I study for years—analyzing, deconstructing, comparing, contrasting, writing, reading—and end up, not even a decade later, unable to recall the word for that kind of rhythm Hopkins created?

This disturbed me.

It made me wonder what else I would forget, but that didn't seem like a thought worth pursuing during church, when you're supposed to be remembering Jesus and not worrying about tomorrow {for tomorrow will care for itself}.

Through the Nicene Creed, through the Confession of Sins, through the Doxology, through the Lord's Prayer {so many words ingrained in my soul!}, I tried to come up with that one word for Hopkins' rhythm.

I could come up with:
  • fragments from his other poems: No worst, there is none. Oh the mind, mind has mountains. Glory be to God for dappled things.
  • where I was when I first read all those poems: mostly in Pickler Memorial Library, on the second floor and tucked away in a corner next to a window where I could see the bell tower.
  • an image of my Modern Brit Lit textbook open to the Hopkins' section: Notes everywhere, in the margins, in between the lines, many things underlined as I tried to get down the essence of the poem. As I tried to distill it into ink and lodge it in my brain.

But I could not come up with that particular vocabulary word, and I finally had to let it go.

I could remember the essential of the poems, and when it comes to literature, isn't that what matters? Literature, good literature, is about getting under our facades and niceties. It's about challenging what we've always thought. It's about figuring out a new way to say what we've always thought.

Good literature isn't about memorizing every word; it's about taking in every word and letting it soak into who you are.

If the feeling of a poem is still with you years after you've read it, you know it was good literature. Even if you can't remember the name of Hopkins' rhythm.

God's Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


It's sprung rhythm, by the way. It came to me the next day when I was at work, and I breathed a sigh of relief. My English degree knowledge and trivia may be slipping away by degrees, but it's not all gone yet.

11 February 2012

very bad poems by me

Once upon a time, in Rouen, France, some 90 miles from Paris, there lived a small girl in a large high school.

You'll have to forgive me for a bit of silliness; I just re-watched Sabrina {the Audrey Hepburn one} on Friday night, and I've always loved that beginning line: "Once upon a time, on the north shore of Long Island, some thirty miles from New York, there lived a small girl on a large estate."

I've also always felt a kinship to Sabrina Fairchild—she who heads off to France and discovers there that she has strength she didn't know she had. She discovers that there is a grace to every day, and she finds that she is worth knowing.

If you have to go somewhere to find yourself, France is an excellent choice.

Sabrina learned that; I learned that. She spent two years learning how to cook, and I spent nine months trying to teach English to high school students {and living in the boarding school}, but the end result was the same: we came home and life hasn't been the same since.

As she says, France "is for changing your outlook! For throwing open the windows and letting in...letting in la vie en rose."

But before you can get to this changed outlook—before you can start seeing the world through rose-colored glasses—you have to do a lot of pondering, walking next to the Seine, drinking very strong coffee, getting lost on cobblestone streets, and writing.

And for me, writing came in the form of very bad poetry. I don't know if Sabrina had to do this; if she did, it was smartly left on the cutting room floor because it's painful enough to live through yourself. We don't need to see Audrey Hepburn writing overly emotional and trying-to-be-deep poetry, although if anyone could make it look enticing, she could.

I recently re-discovered my writing notebooks from when I lived in Rouen. There, I spent hours in Le Bistrot des Carmes, hunched over my notebook and looking for all the world like I was five minutes from taking up smoking as I scribbled and sighed.

At some point in the year, I decided to write a poem a day, and here is a tip for anyone going through their own early 20s discovery period: DO NOT allow yourself to write a poem a day.

Or maybe do.

More than other forms of writing, poetry is prone to people trying too hard.

If you want to take on the world or if you think you have the world figured out, it is very easy to be tempted to write a poem.

If you're feeling like no one understands you, there is no better way to express yourself than in an attempt at iambic pentameter.

Poetry might be so appealing because we have the mistaken idea that it's supposed to be obtuse. The more complicated and symbolic, the better—right? The more you can confuse with your comparisons of love to moss {or whatever tack you want to take}, the deeper you are.

This idea of appearing deep and thoughtful is especially appealing to those just out of college, and if you allow yourself to write a poem a day at a stage when you're trying to figure out life, it will lead to much laughter years later when you re-discover the poems.

By that point, you will have figured out that you can't entirely figure out life, and you'll be both grateful and embarrassed for this record you have left of when you were too full of yourself and your own ideas.

That's how I felt when I found these poems: simultaneously grateful and embarrassed. My time in France—the hours in cafes and wondering the streets—made me who I am today.

But in these poems, I can easily encounter who I was then as I was putting on the rose-colored glasses and learning to let in la vie en rose.

For Your Amusement and Because These Poems Shouldn't Just Languish in My Journal: A Sampling of the France Poems

2 December 2004
{Note: None of these have titles, just dates. Because who can bother with a title when there are deep things to convey in short lines?}

Arrow clouds
Squeezing to a point
Skinny triangle of reflected heat
Burning orange

From where I sit,
cross-legged in the garden, my breath floating like smoke,
The clouds become the way

They are pointing to a choice:
hidden path of dead, known leaves
leading arrow of lively light

I choose to follow the sun
West, towards the eternity of tomorrow.
Analysis by a 30-year-old: What? What choice are you talking about, 23-year-old Kamiah? And what's with the mixed imagery of a clouds making an arrow—but then you're talking about dead leaves? Are the arrow clouds pointing to leaves? Are you referencing that the leaves are the same color as the orange clouds? Are the sun and the leaves the same thing?

I know exactly where you were sitting when you wrote this poem: in the hidden garden on top of the wall that was, in medieval times, Rouen's protection. I can even see the orange sky and the sun flaring off the cathedral spire. But even knowing the image you were looking at, I have no idea why you wanted to follow the clouds {or the sun?} away from the leaves.

11 December 2004
Time passes and where does it go?
Waste and spend, spend and waste.
A minute saved is a minute earned.
Waste not, want not.

Time passes and what it been worth it?
Inside, I hear a nagging voice
a voice like teeth on fancy silver
each tine a stab of guilt
for what I do not know.

But I do know this:
I waste away
but feel the need to prove justify explain conquer.

And then the voice changes
and it's calling out in the wilderness of my soul,
"Prepare ye the way of self-recrimination!"
Analysis by a 30-year-old: Okay, so maybe you were feeling useless when you were in France. You worked 12 hours a week and spent the rest of your time either running, drinking coffee, or, apparently, writing bad poetry. I get that you were questioning what you were doing with your life—with your time.

But wow, cut yourself some slack, little girl! Just because you're having trouble filling a few hours does not mean that you're a failure. You can tell that voice like teeth on fancy silver to go wander around the wilderness, shouting until it makes itself hoarse. It's not worth listening to.

Also, way to work in paraphrases of Benjamin Franklin and Isaiah into the same short poem.

8 December 2004

And oh it's wonderful!
Does everyone feel this—
this bursting cheer, growing surprise, smiling inside?
Does everyone feel—
and oh it's wonderful?

It doesn't seem fair to feel all—all—all
Analysis by a 30-year-old: Um, you do realize that you're stealing from Katherine Mansfield, right? Re-read "The Garden Party" if you're unsure.

Although I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I also congratulate you on writing a rather chipper poem on your birthday, as opposed to one of those guilt-ridden, image-laden confusions.

11 November 2004

Why I'm here depends on so little:
the Eiffel Tower sparkling at 10:00 on a crisp fall night.

But you must understand that
before you can know how I can be here,

But here for a reason.
Analysis by a 30-year-old: Inspired by William Carlos Williams, eh? "So much depends on a red wheelbarrow" and all that.

But I appreciate your attempt to convey that even when you're in this place of beauty and wonder, this place that you've dreamed about, it can be hard. It can be the hardest thing you've ever done, and even as you're amazed that you get to see the Eiffel Tower so much that it becomes commonplace, you're aware that your life is feeling very much the opposite of commonplace.

06 February 2012

for sale {a poem} {feb fun #5}

The house which had been empty is now full,
a testament, perhaps, to the recovering housing market.
Months it sat, a shell of a home,
with that red front door that was meant to be welcoming,
but it clashed with the For Sale sign in the flowerless, brown, scraggly front yard.

A family has moved in now.

A cat has appeared in the front bay window, suspiciously eying passers-by.

There's a new blue sled propped up against the garage
bought in anticipation of a real Midwestern winter of snow that has yet to come this year.

Formal portraits have been hung in the formal living room or beige couches and chairs,
but downstairs in the family room,
the big screen TV is showing a football game
and as one, the family jumps up and

01 February 2012

but i still want to be a hermit {feb fun #1}

February Fun is off to a roaring start, although I may be confusing February with March, aka the "in like a lion and out like a lamb" month.

Regardless, for February 1 {or if I'm feeling especially French pretentious, as I'm known to feel at times, le 1er fevrier}, I was supposed to send a someecard—you know, one of those delightfully snarky and culturally aware eCards.

I chose this:
someecards.com - The mild weather is making it harder to justify hiding in my apartment all winter

  • I'm always tempted to become a hermit in the winter. This is partially why I schedule so many activities: to force me to leave my home. And by "home" I mean: couch/bed/reading nook.
  • I went to bed at 8:30 last night. I'm either in full winter hibernation mode or I'm an 8-year-old.
  • And the night before, I went to bed at 8:00. I think I may have mono. {Considering that I diagnosed myself with tuberculosis the other week—for reasons you probably don't want to hear about—I don't think people should trust my medical advice. If you know what I do for a living, you will find that an incredibly ironic statement.}
  • If I ever develop a beard like that, I really will stay in my apartment all the time, regardless of the mild winter. I'll probably spend most of my time shaving and tweezing.


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